Heat Waves Fall Hardest on Poor and Elderly, Experts Say

A 1995 heat wave in Chicago killed 739 people. Now cities prepare for heat waves, but the root problems that caused the deaths still remain

The death toll from the ’95 heat wave was shocking and “raised the consciousness of everyone in the city,” Aaron Bernstein, co-director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said. Bernstein grew up in Chicago, and remembers his grandmother thanking god for air-conditioning that summer.

“Heat waves aren’t just uncomfortable,” he said. “They’re deadly.”

As cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest prepared for this weekend's heat wave, where around 200 million Americans are under excessive heat warnings, many of the measures that cities are taking were born in the wake of the ’95 heat wave. But the problems and inequities that caused those deaths still remain, NBC News reported.

“Evidence is clear that people who are in the Medicare population are at increased risk for getting hospitalized and dying during a heat wave,” Bernstein said. Also at risk: infants, people with heart failure, kidney disease, or chronic lung disease, pregnant woman, and the poor. While there have always been heat waves, Bernstein said the problem now is that, with climate change, extreme heat is more common and more severe.

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